The food bank, the region’s main provider of food for the poor, has spent $1 million more than expected on fresh produce this year and needs help with its own skyrocketing costs, said Mark McCaffrey, the food bank’s chief operations officer.
“We don’t want to have to do this, but we’re in such a bind,” McCaffrey said. “It’s to try and help us out on transportation and food costs so we can keep the healthy food going out the door.”
For the Food for Others pantry in Fairfax, the new fee will amount to about $40,000 — a quarter of its budget for purchased food — in the coming year for vegetables that were once free. “It is a big hit,” said Roxanne Rice, the pantry’s executive director.
The new fee is just one of the initiatives launched in the Washington area by agencies that help the poor, whose demands have remained high despite modest improvements in the economy.
Bread for the City, the District’s largest food pantry, is planning to organize volunteers this summer for “harvest parties” to scavenge fruit from trees in accessible public spaces, as well as in private back yards with the owners’ permission.
“All the hunger relief organizations are trying hard to think outside the box,” said Sharon Gruber, Bread for the City’s nutrition consultant. “The food we’re providing for our clients should be healthy, and when it’s expensive, we have to think creatively.”
The organization, which feeds 4,500 families monthly, will work with Casey Trees, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering the city’s tree canopy, to identify the city’s fruit trees. The “urban gleaning” venture is expected to begin in August.
Petworth resident Leonard Edwards, 49, who began collecting food stamps recently when his hours at a job with a local nonprofit group were cut, plans to be a part of the new team of urban foragers.
“Times are hard right now. You have to get your healthy foods any way, shape or form you can,” said Edwards, who has seen his grocery bill rise nearly 30 percent in the past year. “You can’t afford a $6 eggplant at Whole Foods. . . . It costs $3 for one red bell pepper!”
Edwards already has been trading his sweat equity for vegetables this summer at a new rooftop garden that Bread for the City planted at its Seventh Street headquarters. The organization hopes the beets, corn and peppers growing there will augment the 60,000 pounds of produce it already gleans from local farmers.
Last week, Edwards’s efforts were rewarded with his first take-home harvest: two eggplants, a fragrant bunch of basil and several chile and banana peppers. He uses those to season his pot of cabbage — stretching the meal from Sunday to Wednesday. On Wednesday, he was again weeding on the roof in the hot sun, plucking a bouquet of cilantro that he hoped to add to a cold pasta salad.